Meet the Cardiologist: Heart Attack Prevention
Dr. Helga Van Herle is a board-certified cardiologist with Keck Medicine of USC in the Los Angeles area. In our "Meet the Specialist" series, we highlight the unique perspectives of various medical specialists on the types of patients they see and what they find rewarding and challenging in their daily practice.
As a cardiologist, I treat people with heart conditions, whether they’ve just had a heart attack, are focused on preventing another one, or are managing a chronic cardiovascular disease. I’m the daughter of a doctor and a teacher, and I feel lucky to be in a position where I treat and educate patients and also teach future doctors the fundamentals of clinical medicine.
In recent decades, patients have become more aware of the importance of identifying and reducing heart disease risk factors, managing heart disease, and taking preventative steps to remain healthy. I am hopeful that this knowledge will translate into a decrease in the incidence and societal burden of heart disease in the future.
Before I went to medical school, I was a chemical engineer and a bioengineer. Throughout the basic science research I participated in, I always leaned towards the medical side of things. Eventually, I decided to become a doctor, and cardiology really stood out for me. The heart is, to put it simply, a pump, which was attractive to me as an engineer. I was excited by the amazing things science has done to decrease the incidence of heart disease and treat it more successfully.
Heart disease is pervasive, but there’s a lot we can do to help people prevent it and treat it. I work with many heart attack survivors who are determined to make a change and stop another heart attack from happening, and today we have many options for keeping patients healthy and heart attack-free.
I love the problem-solving aspect of the profession as well. It is very rewarding when people come to me who have been suffering from a particular constellation of symptoms for a long time, and I am able to be the medical detective, putting these “clues” together that lead not only to a diagnosis, but a treatment plan, too.
A Changing Field
I’ve been a cardiologist for 16 years now, and I feel that it is a really exciting time to be practicing. When I was in my residency, cardiologists were only just starting to perform angioplasties to open arteries when people presented with heart attacks. Now, we have so many more safe, less invasive, and effective options for treating patients with heart problems. The types of different devices available, from stents to heart pumps, have improved significantly. Today, we can give people new heart valves and open blocked heart arteries without performing open-heart surgery; these patients, for the most part, have outcomes that are equal to a more invasive approach. Patients are able to recover quickly, get out of the hospital sooner, and return to their normal lives in a much shorter period of time. Additionally, in this information age, there is a much greater public awareness about heart disease and prevention of heart disease.
I think it is inspiring that patients come in because they have some risk factors for heart disease and they want to be proactive about this aspect of their health. More and more patients are working to prevent heart attacks and heart disease by eating well, exercising, reducing stress, and taking effective medications.
Find the Right Cardiologist
It’s very important for patients to find a cardiologist who will partner with them to treat their heart condition. First, it is important to pick the right cardiologist for the issue that you are dealing with. There are many subspecialities in the field of cardiology, so look for guidance from your primary care physician in terms of the best cardiologist for your particular issue. It is also important that patients find a cardiologist who truly listens to them, takes the time to get to know them, carefully reviews their plan of care, and answers any questions the patient or family members might have.
Stay Positive and Committed
Living a heart-healthy life can be a challenge. After patients recover from a heart attack, they can be overwhelmed by the changes they need to make. I recognize it is by no means easy to take multiple new and different medications and change your lifestyle overnight, but I encourage patients to stay positive and do their best. Sticking to your treatment regimen is crucial, and if you’re having trouble, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for help. I would also emphasize that even if your heart attack or heart-related event was several years ago, make sure you touch base with your cardiologist once in a while. Checking in doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get new tests or medications; we, as cardiologists, like to keep track of our patients, make sure everybody continues to do well, and ensure our patients are receiving “state of the art” therapies for their heart conditions. If you commit to your treatment plan, live a healthy lifestyle, and stay connected with your cardiologist, you can keep your heart healthy for a long time.